By Bridget Kessler
Green Right Now
One of the only two non-extinct genera of the family Elephantidae, African elephants are the remnants of a long line of ancient and mysterious creatures such as wooly mammoths and mastodons.
There are two species of African Elephant (although this is still controversial): the African forest elephant and the African bush elephant, which is the largest living terrestrial animal. Bush elephants have a wide but fragmented range in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. Forest elephants have a much smaller range, residing mainly in the tropical rainforests of the Congo Basin.
African elephants, in comparison to Asian elephants, are on average larger with gray or brownish-gray skin.
They form complex bonds and relationships with each other, living in matriarchal family units of around 10 members, consisting of females and their young, led by a female elder. These family units may then join each other to form what is called a “kinship group” or “bond group,” which could contain over a hundred elephants. After the males in a family unit reach puberty, they leave to form alliances with other males.
African elephants are herbivorous, feeding mostly on grasses, shrubs, roots, bark, fruit, flowers, and leaves. They mostly spend their day in search of food and water, taking mud or dust baths, caring for their young, and socializing. Sometimes they dig in the ground or venture into caves to find minerals.
The IUCN lists the African elephant as vulnerable, and although they are adaptable to various habitats (savanna, miombo woodland, bushlands, swamps, grassy plains, etc), these areas continue to diminish due to human expansion. But the other significant threat African elephants face is poaching, for both meat and ivory. For centuries elephants have been slaughtered for their prized tusks, but only during the 1970s and 80s did this start to escalate in response to growing demand in Asia.
According to the African Elephant Conservation Trust, Kenya’s elephant population declined by an estimated 85 percent between 1973 and 1989. Additionally, close to 70 percent of their range is unprotected, meaning that they are increasingly susceptible to accidents with people, possibly resulting in injury or death for either party. Tens of thousands are still killed annually.
Although hunting African elephants for sport is legal in several African countries, progress is being made to better protect the animals. The Kenyan Wildlife Service burned over 1 million dollars worth of ivory in 1989, led by their president at the time, protesting the out-of-control ivory trade. And in March 2013, the prime minister of Thailand, which is the second largest ivory importer after China, announced legislative plans to end the trade in her country.
Facts about African elephants:
- African elephants can eat 300 to 400 lbs of vegetation per day
- They have the largest brains of all terrestrial animals, and are considered as intellectually superior as apes, and dolphins
- They emit a wide variety of vocalizations (most of which cannot be heard by the human ear due to their low frequencies) which are essential to communication within herds
- They can live up to 70 years, be up to 13 feet tall, and weigh up to 10 tons
- Before mating, African elephants will call to each other and intertwine their trunks
- Male elephants (called bulls) have temporal glands on the sides of the faces which secrete a fluid during a period called “musth,” during which they experience high levels of testosterone and become aggressive
- The upper lip and nose of an elephant form a trunk, which serves as a fifth limb for producing loud vocalizations, feeding, drinking, bathing, touching, and other social behaviors
- “Pygmy elephants” are actually thought to be African forest elephants
- In family units, females who will watch over calves which are not their own are called “allomothers”
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